Strat Packer's blog
Creative and intellectual output beyond the realm of my day job
Sid Meier's Memoir! review
A book I preordered six months ago finally landed on my doormat in October. Sid Meier’s Memoir!, the autobiography by the genuis game designer behind groundbreaking and much-loved strategy games like Civilization, turned out not only to have the title that fans of his games hoped it would, but also to be far more insightful than the average book written by a developer.
Starting with the events leading to MicroProse’s 1982 founding, Memoir! covers the full span of Meier’s career, from the early days developing solo and using every trick in the book to pitch titles to games stores all the way to the internal politics that forced the founding of Firaxas and the gradual winning back of some of his most prized intellectual property.
I’m always wary of books by famous creators. More often than not they cover the who, where, and what of their careers - I worked at this company, I released this game, this person gave me some great advice - but not the how or the why. Maybe they think the bigger audience doesn’t have an interest in the intricacies of how great works are put together, and therefore decide to focus more on the glamour and big names in their industry.
Sid Meier, on the other hand, gives a great deal more information about the games themselves. Each of Memoir!’s chapters is dedicated to one or more titles in his extensive back catalogue, and the format varies for each. Expect insights into the inner workings of MicroProse and Firaxis, stories from Meier’s childhood and time staying with family in Switzerland, and stories about how other passions like music and golf influenced his titles.
However, the passages where Meier gets into game design itself are what set this book apart and will keep you turning the pages. When discussing his games, he zeroes in on the individual decisions that made or broke them. What shape should each space on the map be? How much of a story does a strategy game need? When should a free roaming game end? Memoir! covers each of these questions and more. It rarely gets very technical, but as somebody who dabbled in bedroom game development in his youth, it really is fascinating to see how the pros approach conundrums like these.
Meier also shares the rules that helped to make his games what they are - nobody should die in a Sid Meier game, for example, and the golden rule is that the player should always be given interesting decisions to make, with realism never coming at the expense of fun (something that I incidentally discussed in my retrospective of Pro Evolution Soccer 5).
The last game covered by Memoir! is Sid Meier’s Starships, which was released in 2015. That final chapter is to me the most poignant of the whole book. In it, the author discusses the difference between Sid Meier and Sid Meier!, and reflects on the way his career and the games industry have both developed since the 1980s. I won’t ruin the rest, but it was moving to read something so candid from such a legendary figure.
I’m probably the perfect target audience for this book - nerdy, with some amateur game development experience and a history of playing Sid Meier-created and -inspired games - but I don’t think I’m overselling it when I say this is the perfect video game autobiography. If you have even a passing interest in gaming (even outside of the strategy genre), game development, or Sid Meier himself, I’d certainly recommend picking up a copy.